A brain-computer interface restores a paralyzed man’s vital senses

By Faisal Khan | 6 May 2020

Ian Burkhart severed his spinal cord in a swimming accident in 2010. (Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

Ian Burkhart, who severed his spinal cord in a swimming accident in 2010 is now able to move and feel via a BCI.

Currently, a lot of research is being conducted on two types of brain-computer interfaces (BCI) — invasive and non-invasive. Both of these are beginning to see a useful application in the medical technology field, as we see in today’s story. Elon Musk’s company Neuralink is working on the former, while social media giant Facebook is working on the latter.

Earlier last year, the UK scientific organization, The Royal Society published a report estimating that neural interfaces will be an established option in the medical field by 2040. Recently, I wrote about an AI that could convert brain activity into text — the model involved implanting electrode arrays in participants’ brains to monitor epileptic seizures.

Back in 2010, Ian Burkhart severed his spinal cord in an accident, losing the ability to walk, with severe limitations to motion in his limbs. After struggling with the new reality for years, he finally enrolled in a trial program called NeuroLife at Battelle (Ohio, U.S). The non-profit organization intended to implant a small chip in his brain to improve motion and create a sense of touch.

“We’re separating thoughts that are occurring almost simultaneously and are related to movements and sub-perceptual touch, which is a big challenge.”
~ Lead Researcher, Patrick Ganzer

Not ready to live life as a paralyzed man, Burkhart opted for the experimental treatment, where a brain-computer interface (BCI) was surgically implanted at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center in 2014. The implanted chip, which is not larger than a grain of rice was designed to hook up Burkhart’s primary motor cortex to his hands through a relay. It’s six years later and Burkhart is finally able to feel objects and has enough control of his arm to press buttons along the neck of a “Guitar Hero” controller.

A severe spinal energy like the one Burkhart suffered causes a complete disconnect between brains and the limbs. However, recent neuroscience experiments have shown that the spinal cord could be skipped to hook up Burkhart’s primary motor cortex to his hands through a relay.

Researchers theorized to extract weak signals from the brain, decode their meaning and eventually relaying them to the limbs, bypassing the spine. The only problem was that signals for touch and movement are all mixed up in the brain and each movement or touch generates a unique signal. The implanted chip takes around 100 different signals at a time.

“It’s definitely strange. It’s still not normal, but it’s definitely much better than not having any sensory information going back to my body.” ~ Ian Burkhart

For practical purposes, a port in the back of the Burkhart’s skull sends signals to a computer, where a specialized software decodes the jumbled up signals and splits them between signals corresponding to motion and touch respectively. Both of these signals are then sent out to a sleeve of electrodes around Burkhart’s forearm.

Now that the lab trial has been successful, Ganzer and his team plan on improving the system for everyday use. The team has already created a compact box, the size of a VHS tape that could be easily mounted on a patient’s wheelchair.

Complete Research was published in the Journal Cell.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Faisal Khan is a prolific Canada-based tech blogger and influencer. He is the founder and editor of the Technicity publication which focuses on technical, scientific and financial knowledge sharing. Follow him on Twitter @fklivestolearn.

An Interview with NeuroLife Trial Participant Ian Burkhart

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